Reconnecting with First Liberty Institute clients and people of faith whose steadfastness and past legal victories continue to touch America today . . .
Last year at this time, Brooks Hamby was getting ready to graduate from high school. He was about to be chosen as the salutatorian of Brawley Union High School in Brawley, California, and would be asked to write a graduation speech. There was no doubt that Hamby, a devout evangelical Christian, would include references to God in what he would say to his fellow students.
But when Brooks submitted the first draft of his graduation speech to Brawley Union School District school officials, they told him he could not reference God.
Brooks had written his speech as a prayer, including the sentence:
“Heavenly Father, in all times, let us always be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.”
He ended up rewriting his speech two more times—each time receiving it back from school officials with all religious references crossed out in black, as if the school was attempting to block out obscenity or obscure classified material.
On the day of the ceremony, Brooks and his parents were called to see the principal and were notified by the school district that if Brooks “interjects religious content, the sound will be cut off, and a disclaimer to the entire audience must be made explaining the district’s position.” Brooks didn’t want any trouble—but neither could he compromise his faith and his convictions, so he wrote a fourth version of his speech and prepared to deliver it at his graduation a few hours later that night. He made mention of the previous three versions of his speech and included references to the Bible and his Christian faith.
Amazingly, the school did not silence Brooks’ microphone and allowed him to finish his speech. But in response to the school district’s rejection of Brooks’ graduation speech, First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys sent a demand letter seeking a public statement from the district exonerating Hamby of any wrongdoing and an affirmation that such censorship will not occur in the future.
Today, as a college freshman at Stanford University, Brooks knows what is at stake for all people of faith today—graduation speakers and otherwise. “If this challenge to religious liberty can occur in Brawley,” he says, “it can happen anywhere.”
He recently shared his thoughts about standing up for his religious liberty rights . . . what the legal support and expertise of First Liberty Institute has meant to him . . . and how he hopes graduating seniors who are giving speeches this graduation season will be encouraged to stand for their lawful religious expression in our nation’s schools.
It’s been almost a year since you had your graduation address censored. Do you remember how that felt?
When my speech was denied and censored three times and was told the microphone would be cut if I mentioned my faith, I was really pretty shocked and disappointed. I was looking to share a brief positive message with my graduating class, something to inspire and give hope for our lives as we move past high school. Unfortunately, my school did not believe that the mention of God as a part of that was appropriate.
If you had known about First Liberty Institute at the time, would you have called them after your speech was first censored by the principal?
Without a doubt. When the school denied and censored my speeches, stating that the inclusion of “Jesus” or “God” was unconstitutional, I knew that something wasn’t right. But no matter how polite or how much evidence I gave to show them that it was legally okay to mention my faith, they didn’t respond well. Had I known about First Liberty Institute before I gave my final speech, I believe the school would have either allowed me to give one of my original speeches, or be held accountable for censoring personal religious speech.
After you contacted First Liberty Institute, how did you feel about their efforts on your behalf?
I cannot commend First Liberty Institute enough for their professionalism and swiftness in dealing with my case. They were always there to give support and help to me when I needed it most. First Liberty Institute is truly dedicated to the protection of religious liberty across America and takes every effort to make sure that the rights of people of faith are not infringed.
You were interviewed by some major news outlets (including FOX News) about your story. What was it like to share your story with such a large audience?
My hometown, Brawley, is a pretty small town in an agricultural area. I would have never expected firstly to have been denied the ability to share my faith there, but secondly, that such attention would be drawn after I was told by the school I could not and would not be allowed to give my speech.
Quite honestly, I was incredibly nervous before giving the speech, and in interviews afterward. I wasn’t looking to make trouble or a fuss with my speech. I just wanted to share a good word and personal experience which included my faith with my class. But I felt it was important to share this experience, because if this challenge to religious liberty can occur in Brawley, it can happen anywhere.
Do you think more and more students across the country will face similar censorship just like you did?
I believe so. After I had given my speech, my grandparents told me about their third grade teacher opening up the Bible to be read every morning, or saying the Lord’s Prayer alongside the Pledge of Allegiance. Last year, I was told that the inclusion of “Jesus” was unconstitutional and the district would pull the mic if I decided to say that name. Schools across the country are either fearful of lawsuits, misunderstand the protection of religious expression, or both.
Did your experience open your eyes to the threats to religious freedom in America today?
Despite all that happened over my short speech, at the end of it all I was able to realize that discrimination based on religious expression is not a novel or isolated issue. There are thousands of incidents annually, and my case was simply one of the many.
Where are you going to college and what are you studying?
I am a student at Stanford University, currently undeclared, considering History or Political Science.
Have you seen any type of religious discrimination there?
College really is unique in two main ways. In one sense, outright “legal” religious discrimination based on rules or administration does not really occur. Students have much more leeway in terms of free speech and expression on a college campus than a high school one, which is fantastic.
However, college is much different in the sense that there is a generally cynical view of being religious or attending church. Many times, the mention of faith is not welcome to many, and as a result, many others have never even been exposed to Christianity or even having never gone to church. This presents a unique opportunity to share God’s love with those, who are willing to explore and accept, especially because you are free to do so.
Have you been asked to speak publicly about your experience?
I had the privilege to attend the Values Voter Summit last fall and share my experiences with my graduation speech censorship. It is so important for people to know they are not alone, and that there are thousands across the country who have had their religious freedom challenged, and that support from members of your community, people across the country, and especially First Liberty Institute who are incredibly supportive of the right to speak about your faith.
Why is it important that organizations like First Liberty Institute exist today?
First Liberty Institute is a strong organization that has the ability to right wrongs and protect our foundational freedoms, most importantly freedom of religion and freedom of speech. I believe the only limit to what First Liberty Institute can do is just being known to those who need help most like I did. First Liberty Institute has all the right people and resources and is absolutely dedicated to protecting religious freedom.
What’s your advice to graduating valedictorians and salutatorians who are people of faith and who are drafting their graduation speeches right now?
As I said in my speech last year, “Be the salt of the earth. Be strong and stand for your convictions and stand for what is right, what is ethical, what is moral and what is Godly, no matter what is the cost to you. Stand for what is good wherever you go and whatever you do.”
As these high school grads are entering the next step in their lives, they should stand for their convictions and not be silenced by those who seek to censor their faith and misconstrue our core freedoms.
If you are a student who has been given the privilege of addressing your classmates at graduation this year and want to make sure that what you say reflects your values, please contact First Liberty Institute. Staff attorneys are ready to evaluate your speech against what your school requires and the Constitution permits.
Also, please contact First Liberty Institute at email@example.com or call (972) 941-4444 if you have had your religious liberty rights violated, or know of a graduate who has.
Please click here if you would like to give a donation to help defend and restore religious freedom.
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.FirstLiberty.org.